I have been an optimist all along, I think, and a rational one since I began to study politics, history and society in a serious way. I had not, however, used the term ‘rational optimist’ to describe myself — usually just ‘optimist’, since in the university world we are all almost by definition rational (!), though some are pessimistic about humanity and its future.
A few years ago a journalist called Matt Ridley wrote book called The Rational Optimist, and I then knew what I really was. It is a yet another good book waiting for me to open its pages (my bucket list of books that ought to be read is very large), but in the meantime he has written a long article that I have read: ‘Apocalypse Not’, which you can read online in Wired. In it he sets out the cries of doom that I have witnessed all my adult life, and advises us firmly to take scant notice of them. He starts with the religious ones, prophesying the end of the world on a given date (there is one offered for 22 December this year).
And what a list they make. He groups the others in four categories, his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. See how many you can remember or at least recognise.
DDT (Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, 1962)
Air pollution (1970s)
Acid rain (1980s)
The ozone layer (chlorofluorocarbons) (1990s)
Mad cow disease
SARS (a virus from civet cats)
Swine flu again (this time Mexican)
The population bomb (Ehrlich, 1966)
Mass starvation (Malthus again)
Running out of needed metals
I remember all of them, and I could add, probably under People, the proposed nuclear holocaust, which would kill us all and make the world uninhabitable. There are three points to make about this list. First, there were those who saw in these threats the end to civilisation as we know it, and the mass media picked up these doomsayers and gave them plenty of space and airtime. Second, in each case there was something to the threat, but either we dealt with it, or it proved not to be nearly as serious as had been feared. Third, they keep coming: there is rarely a time when we don’t have such a scare in front of us.
What he doesn’t say about this list is how many of the scares have their origin in science or, more generally, in prognostications of the supposedly well informed. I am not aware of examples earlier than the 1950s other than Malthus, who excelled at mathematics in Cambridge, and wrote that population would always increase faster than the means of subsistence. He has his followers today. But science, the vital weapon in the hands of the Allies in the second world war, has been the basis of our material success since, and is also the basis of our proposed dooms. That is worth thinking about, and I’ll have a go at another time.
What Ridley does say is that if you examine the recent scares hard, they prove to be pretty dodgy: ‘ the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize’. Acid rain was more of an environmental nuisance than a catastrophe; the hole in the ozone layer stopped growing before the ban on CFCs took effect, and it is still there; HIV-AIDS never became a broad-based epidemic in the developed world and is retreating in Africa; mad cow disease killed 176 people in the UK not the hundreds of thousands of victims predicted; and so on.
And the neo-Malthusians don’t consider what has happened about population. Population growth rates have declined, while food production has risen dramatically — and areas of former agricultural land have been returned to forest. Peak Oil? People have been claiming that we have passed the peak for a long time, and it may be that much of the easily recoverable oil has been found. But there is plenty more than can be recovered at a price, while we could, if we had to, convert our vehicles to run on gas, of which there is a large abundance.
Why we fall for these prophecies of catastrophe is another story, and I’ll go there soon too, but I’ll finish with Ridley on climate change, which he sees as a case where the doom-sayers triumph over the moderates — those (like me) who accept that burning fossil fuels will warm the atmosphere, but see that as slow and small in comparison to natural variability, see the effects as including important gains for humanity (like improved agricultural productivity and less severe winters), and see adaptation rather than mitigation as the way to go.
I think there are reasons for optimism in viewing how humanity has grown and prospered since the last war. We can take action across whole societies. Britain’s clear air act in 1964 transformed the face of urban Britain over the next few decades: black was replaced by the original colour of the stone and brick. We are a clever species that can find technological solutions to real problems, and I am optimistic that we will continue to do so.